India farm laws officially repealed


Farmers celebrate after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he will repeal the controversial farm laws, at the Singhu border farmers protest site near the Delhi-Haryana border, India, Nov 19, 2021. [PHOTO/AGENCIES]

Parliament's move comes ten days after PM Modi's surprise U-turn, but protests yet to end

Indian lawmakers on Nov 29 repealed agricultural legislation that triggered yearlong protests by angry farmers across the nation and forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a U-turn and walk back the controversial reforms.

The Farm Laws Repeal Bill 2021 was passed in both houses of parliament sans debate. On Nov 19, Modi announced his surprise decision to withdraw the three laws, saying the government was not "able to convince farmers" on the merits of the legislation.

Federal agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar who introduced the Bill in the parliament said discussion was not required as opposition parties had also been demanding the repeal of the law.

"The Bill is an example of the magnanimity shown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi… The Opposition, including the Congress party, has been demanding the repeal of the law… so there is no need for discussion," Tomar said while responding to the Opposition's demand for a discussion on the issue.

After the bill was introduced in the lower house of the parliament where most of the elected members are from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, opposition parties began protesting as no time was allotted for discussion.

Opposition members had demanded discussion on farmers' issues, including guaranteed support prices for crops and compensation to families of those who died during the year-long agitation.

The bill to repeal was passed within four minutes in the lower house of parliament, where the people's representatives sit. It now awaits the assent of President Ram Nath Kovind for formal withdrawal.

"Earlier, we had said that the government will have to withdraw the farm laws, and today these laws were repealed. It is unfortunate that the farm laws were repealed without discussion. This government is scared of holding a discussion," Rahul Gandhi, a parliament member and former president of the opposition Indian National Congress party told reporters outside the parliament.

The Modi government introduced the farm bill in Sept 2020 through an executive order, traditionally reserved for emergency legislation, triggering the longest-running farmer protests in the country. Parliament then passed the legislation via a voice vote, drawing widespread criticism that it had rushed through the laws without proper debate.

After the three laws were passed, tens of thousands of farmers camped out on the outskirts of the national capital, New Delhi, for more than a year demanding removal of the legislation, which they feared would jeopardize their livelihoods.

Terming the laws as a "disease" and saying that it was good that they have been repealed, prominent farm union leader Rakesh Tikait said their protest campaign will not end.

"Let the President put the stamp on the bill, then we will discuss other issues," said Tikait, adding that they have demanded discussion on several issues, including minimum support price, or MSP,  for essential crops like wheat and rice, matters related to the around 750 farmers who died during the protests and nullifying police cases lodged against protesting farmers.

Farm union leaders have called a meeting on Dec 1 to decide their next course of action.

The government currently buys rice and wheat at state-set MSP, but the subsidies only benefit about 6 percent of India's millions of farmers, according to the Food Corporation of India.

Experts have noted that Modi's decision to scrap the new laws came ahead of state elections early next year in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where farmers constitute a significant chunk of the voting population. But it is too early to say if the scrapping of the farm laws will pay electoral dividends for the BJP, they said.

"BJP holds power in UP. If farmers do not support the ruling party, it will not only shrink (the party's) prospects to form a state government for a second term, (it will) also weaken chances for the party to get an overwhelming majority in the 2024 national elections," said economist R Ramakumar, a professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

Ashok Gulati, a prominent agricultural economist, called the withdrawal of the farm laws "a total surprise." The prime minister's U-turn makes sweeping agricultural reforms unlikely in the foreseeable future, Gulati said.

The World Bank estimates that about 211 million people, 43 percent of India's workforce, make a living from agriculture, making for by far the world's largest population of farmers. Most Indian farmers, however, have only small land holdings — nearly 9 out of 10 farms are of less than 5 acres in size.

The government repeatedly claimed that the farm laws would deregulate the agricultural sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets.

But opposition parties accused Modi of selling out poor farmers to favor big corporations that are close to the government.

Protesting farmers said the laws would lead to a corporate takeover of the vast agriculture sector, which is the largest source of livelihood in India. About 70 percent of rural households depend on agriculture.

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